On Sunday, September 11, 2016, the Dallas Cowboys played the New York Giants in Arlington, Texas. Exactly three months later, on Sunday December 11, 2016, the two NFC East rivals meet again, this time in East Rutherford, N. J.
In between those two dates, a great deal has taken place. Since the Cowboys dropped that season opener to the Giants by a 20-19 score, Dallas has won 11 straight, showcased arguably the best running game in football and boasted a defense that has been equally stout against the run, allowing an NFC-best 79 rushing yards per game.
Each of those factors largely explain why the Cowboys own an NFL-best 11-1 record, will clinch the NFC East with a victory on Sunday, and also with a win can lock up home-field advantage should both Seattle and Detroit lose their Week 14 games. But for Dallas to earn that all-important 12th victory, it’ll need to rely on rookie quarterback Dak Prescott more than any one else, and more than ever before.
When Dallas and the Giants kicked off in Week 1, Prescott had yet to take an NFL snap. Although the rookie had been impressive during the preseason, no one knew what to expect from him in his first NFL start. Cowboys fans hoped he could avoid making mistakes and, in the process, win enough games to keep Dallas in contention for a playoff spot until Tony Romo was able to return.
And in his debut, Prescott barely met those low expectations. Relying heavily on short passes, especially to tight end Jason Witten, he completed 25 of 45 attempts for 227 yards, and no touchdowns. Only one of his completions traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and he managed to complete just one pass for 8 yards to the Cowboys’ top playmaker, wide receiver Dez Bryant.
That’s not to say Prescott played poorly. He personally converted on third down seven times, didn’t take a sack or commit a turnover and led Dallas to a scoring drive in each quarter. And with the game on the line he managed to get the Cowboys from their own 20-yard line into Giants territory in under a minute without a timeout. Had it not been for Terrance Williams’ bonehead play (electing not to run out of bounds in the final seconds) the Cowboys would have had a chance to at least attempt a lengthy game-winning field goal.
But the training wheels came off of Prescott after that game, which coincidently marked the lowest single-game quarterback rating (69.4) and yards-per-attempt (5.04) he has posted during his young career. Since Week 1, Prescott has completed 69.7 percent of his passes, is averaging 250 yards passing per game and has thrown 19 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.
Obviously, running back Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in football give Prescott an advantage afforded no other quarterback in the NFL. And he’s fortunate to have an excellent collection of pass catchers. But that shouldn’t detract from Prescott’s impressive growth. He’s as responsible for Dallas’ success as anyone else, and that will be the case again on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. That’s because the Giants make for a fairly strong matchup against the Cowboys.
New York’s run defense is ranked fifth in the NFL, and despite allowing 118 yards last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell (the first running back to reach triple digits against the Giants all season) they didn’t surrender any huge gains on the ground. Bell’s longest rush was 19 yards, and he averaged a pretty pedestrian 4 yards per carry. The Giants actually rank first in the conference in yards per rush with a 3.6 average, far better than the Cowboys’ number, so Elliott will face one of his toughest challenges yet.
Meanwhile, while run defense is clearly the Cowboys strength, the Giants feature the second-lowest ranked rushing offense in the NFL. Even if Shane Vereen returns to action, the Giants will rely on quarterback Eli Manning, not the collection of runners that has been held under 60 rushing yards five times in the last eight games. Expect New York to abandon the run — which likely wouldn’t have been very productive anyway — and throw the ball at least 40 times. Not only is that when the Giants offense is at its best, but it’s the one area where Dallas has struggled this season. Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s unit has not been overly successful at pressuring opposing quarterback (22nd in sacks) or forcing turnovers in the passing game (31st in interceptions, 29th in turnovers).
In short, if the Cowboys play roughly the same game in Week 14 that they played in Week 1, the Giants should hang with Dallas for 60 minutes. The x-factor is Prescott.
Dallas needs him to drive the ball downfield far more often than he did in September. The teams that have had success against the Giants were able to stretch the ball downfield, whether it was the Green Bay Packers (Davante Adams), the Washington Redskins (DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder), the Minnesota Vikings (Charles Johnson), the Philadelphia Eagles (Bryce Treggs) or the Steelers (Ladarius Green). Each of those teams put together a critical touchdown drive against the Giants thanks in part to a long pass completion.
Given Prescott’s mobility, the dominance of the Cowboys offensive line, and a weakened Giants pass rush now that Jason Pierre-Paul is injured, the Cowboys should take a few additional shots downfield. Hitting on even one of those attempts might just be enough to knock out the Giants, in both the game on Sunday and the NFC East race.